LET'S TALK LEADERS
Recently I had a rather animated discussion with a local fishing outfitter. Not exactly a novice, he has been guiding fly fishing clients for over 30 years, and over those years has probably spent more time helping clients connect to wild trout on our local rivers and spring creeks than most of us will spend fishing in two lifetimes. While he doesn't like the title 'expert' anyone that knows him would consider that he fits the title. While we covered several topics during our conversation one topic was at the top of his list, and it involved leaders and especially tippets.
His main complaint was that his clients want to use tippets that are unnecessarily small because they are afraid that the fish will be spooked by the leader, especially on the spring creeks. Recently one of his clients insisted that he needed to use a 6x tippet when fishing on one of the local spring creeks. His reasoning was that the fish would be spooked by a larger diameter leader. After watching him lose several fish in the weeds my friend took his clients rod, reversed the leader, tying the fly on the butt section and proceeded to hook and land several fish using the butt section as a tippet! I would say that he busted that myth.
Is it possible that a fish will be spooked by the leader or the tippet? The short answer is yes, but only under very limited situations. Several years ago I found several real large trout in a very shallow slough just off the main flow of a stream. The fish were cruising slowly picking up and occasional insect from the surface. Since the water was shallow and very clear I retreated a short distance away and added a longer and finer tippet. Carefully casting out over the surrounding grass so as to avoid putting the line over the cruising trout I gently laid out my cast several feet in front of one of the large cruising fish. Just dropping the leader on the water was enough to spook those trout. The leader cast a shadow on the bottom and that was enough to spook those trout. Later, when I spoke to another angler that regularly fished that area he told me that the only way he had ever been able to get one of those fish to take a fly was on an overcast day during hopper time. By splatting down a big hopper pattern just to the side of one of the big cruiser you might get lucky but even then they would often spook. He had tried long leaders, long 7x tippets and all to no avail. Just the shadow of the leader was enough to spook those trout under those conditions.
My outfitter friend contents that fish, even on hard fished waters, are not spooked by the leader unless you hit the fish on the head with it. A fish may be spooked by a leader that is dragging a fly across the surface, but it's not the leader that's spooking the fish but what the leader is doing. A fly that's tied on a 6 0r 7x tippet, if it's dragging or otherwise causing the fly to act in an unnatural manner, is more likely to result in a refusal or a spooked fish than the same fly that is presented properly on a larger tippet. Eliminate the drag, show the fish the fly first and you will discover that you don't need to use such light tippets.
I learned a rule many years ago that has served me well over the years when selecting a correct tippet to use. It's called the rule of 4's and to use it you simply multiply the size of your tippet by 4. For example a 4x tippet: 4 X 4 = 16. A 4x tippet will be adequate for a size 16 fly and will work with one fly size on either side of 16 so a 4x tippet can be used on size 14, 16 and 18. A 5x tippet can be used for 18, 20, and 22 sized flies. [5 X 4 = 20] Since most anglers rarely use flies smaller than 22 a 5x tippet should be more than adequate. [The standard 5x tippet has a breaking strength of 4.75 pounds while a 6x tippet has a breaking strength of 3.5 pounds]
Leader length is another subject that generates a lot of discussion. There are some anglers that use extremely long leaders especially when they are using small flies on gin clear water. Over the last 37 years I have spent countless hours fishing spring creeks and tail waters where the water is crystal clear and the hatches consist of small insects. I regularly fish with 9 and 10 foot leaders and 5x tippets. When I get the proper fly to the fish in a natural way I don't believe that I have ever had a fish refuse to eat it because of the length of the leader or the size of the tippet.
Leaders are certainly one of the most important pieces of tackle that we use in fly fishing. The weakest link in our arsenal is our leader and especially the tippet, that part of the leader where we tie on our fly. Fortunately, there have been vast advances in tippet technology over the last couple decades, and the leaders and tippets barely resemble the same items we were using just a short time ago.
I went back through my collection of old angling catalogues looking for information on the leaders that were available when I started seriously fly fishing. In a 1964 Dan Bailey's catalogue I found a listing for Gladyl Knotless Leaders and tippet material. 5x leader material had a breaking strength of 3.3 pounds. 4x had a breaking strength of 3.8 pounds. Gladyl leader material is no longer available and the current tippet material listed in the Bailey's catalogue is Dai-Riki. 4x Dai-Riki has a breaking strength of 6.0 pounds, 5x has a breaking strength of 4.75 pounds and 6x has a breaking strength of 3.50 pounds. This is consistent with most other brands of tippet material on the market.
The best leader and tippet combination is the one that allows the angler to hook and land a fish as expediently as possible. I am interested in landing the fish that I hook before I exhaust them to the point of death, and I have found that I can do that much more consistently on heavier tippets without spooking fish or suffering refusals because of the larger tippet size. Presentation of your fly in as natural a manner as possible is far more important than the size of your tippet and the length of your leader.